Elliptical Machine Buying Guide
Treadmills have been the best-selling home exercise equipment for quite some time, but they’re also one of the most often-abandoned, as many people tire of them quickly.
With more people opting for ellipticals, the available selection of home machines has grown rapidly. In this elliptical machine buying guide we’ll quickly look at the benefits of these units, and then explain the best ways to go about narrowing down the choices and choosing an elliptical to become your long-term workout partner.
Why Elliptical Machines?
Ellipticals first started growing in popularity because of their stark contrast with treadmills; each will provide a good aerobic workout, but an elliptical machine cardio workout is low-impact, with much less stress and strain on the joints, particularly those in the back, hips, legs and knees. Elliptical trainers also enable users to vary their workouts more than the straightforward running, jogging or walking possible on treadmills. The different types of exercises, combining the actions used in skiing, climbing and running, can make workouts seem more enjoyable and fun over long periods.
Once most ellipticals began coming standard with moveable handles, effectively making them cross-trainers as well, they attracted an entirely new group of devotees seeking to work out their lower and upper bodies at the same time and add strength training to their cardio regime. The design of most machines lets users “walk backward” as well as forward, and that expands the range of muscles, such as the quads, which can be worked on elliptical trainers – once again providing a more varied workout.
A major benefit to elliptical machines which is often underrated is that they “seem easier” than treadmills to users. Studies have shown that people working out on an elliptical are expending more energy than they realize, which means that burning an acceptable number of calories on an elliptical machine is less of an ordeal for most users than it would be on a treadmill. In fact, research proves that calories burned per hour is roughly equal on both machines, which actually can make elliptical workouts more productive per session; if you think the exercising is easier, you’re likely to spend longer doing it.
High-quality ellipticals are expensive, so just as with treadmills it pays big dividends to do your homework before pulling out the credit card. We’ll assign that homework in the next section of this elliptical machine buying guide.
How to Choose an Elliptical Trainer?
There are three big questions you should ask yourself before settling in to sift through online listings of ellipticals or heading off to your local sporting goods outlet, fitness retailer or big box store.
The first one is “Why am I buying this?” We don’t mean that you should doubt your decision to purchase an elliptical machine. Our point is that you need to know exactly how you’ll be using the trainer, so you can choose one with the right features. For example, if you’re not interested in using the machine for cross-training and just want to use it to work your lower body, you can choose a model without movable arms and save money. If your most important reason for buying an elliptical is for stair-stepping, you can get away with a front-drive machine without paying more for a rear-drive model. Understanding what you’re trying to accomplish can help you narrow the field considerably. The final piece of this puzzle is how often you plan on using the elliptical machine, because inexpensive trainers usually won’t hold up to frequent, intense usage.
The second question is “How much space do I have available?” If you’re working with tons of room, you can pretty much choose whichever elliptical appeals to you. However, these machines can be large. A corner of the family room, the garage or an apartment may not be an appropriate location for a rear-drive trainer or a machine designed for elite users; a front-drive machine or one of the newer center-drive units will probably be a better choice, because both are much lighter and more compact. Some have wheels and others can be collapsed for easy storage.
Finally, the big one: “What’s my budget?” Unfortunately, as with most home gym equipment, the super-cheap models you often find online or at local stores aren’t built to last. You can find a few decent ellipticals under $500, if you want to try a basic unit at home simply to determine whether you should invest in a higher-quality unit. If you’ve already had some experience with these machines at the gym or are convinced you want to go the elliptical trainer route, be prepared to pay at least $1000-1500 for a good machine, and $2000 or more for an elite one. In any event, knowing your price range before you start your search will prevent a lot of time wasted on researching machines you can’t afford. Don’t forget to check out industry standard review sites like ours who review Best Elliptical machines every year!
The Two Big Decisions When Buying an Elliptical
There are two major decisions you’ll have to make after you’ve answered the “why, where and how much” questions: what type of elliptical machine you want to purchase, and what type of drive it should have.
Elliptical machines can be broken down into three categories. We’ll list them in order of their usual price range and the intensity of the workouts each can provide.
- Elliptical Glider: Not everyone would agree that these are actually “ellipticals,” but the label is often assigned to them. Also known as air walkers or air striders, these are primarily intended to tone leg muscles while providing a decent yet simple low-impact aerobic workout. Your feet fit onto pedals which move up-and-down along an arc to work your leg muscles, but don’t move in the circular (elliptical) motion that is the hallmark of a standard elliptical machine. There’s no option to change the incline of the movement; the intensity of the workout can only be varied by changing the resistance of the pedals. Elliptical gliders are much less complicated mechanically, and therefore the least expensive option.
- Elliptical Trainer: These are the machines which were originally the only ones called ellipticals. Designed for a full lower-body workout, the left and right pedals move forward in the full shape of an ellipse, which is the natural way your legs move when walking or running. Most trainers let you adjust both the resistance and the incline, providing a good workout for your glutes and hamstrings in addition while toning other leg muscles during the cardio session. You can also pedal backwards on many ellipticals, to better work your glutes and also attack your quads.
- Elliptical Cross-Trainer: Quickly becoming the “new standard” for ellipticals, these machines provide both an upper- and lower-body workout at the same time. Your feet go onto the pedals just as they do on an old-style elliptical, while you push and pull the arms of the unit in rhythm. The arm resistance can also be adjusted on cross-trainers, giving you full control of the complete workout and allowing you to burn the most calories while working most of the core muscles in your body. Getting the best elliptical workout, of course, also means the equipment costs the most.
We’ve already alluded to the second major decision, which is whether you want a rear-drive, front-drive or center-drive machine.
- Front-drive machines create a motion more like climbing stairs than running or walking, and don’t have an incline adjustment. Stepping can be beneficial, but is also harder on the joints and the back. These machines are usually lighter and cheaper, but have more moving parts and are not as durable.
- Rear-drive ellipticals provide a more effective workout because of the circular running/walking motion of their pedals; the rear positioning of the large flywheel also makes these units heavier and more durable. They’re what you’ll usually find in gyms, they’re what the pros use, and they’re more expensive than front-drive ellipticals.
- Center-drive ellipticals are the new kid on the block. Their design places the pedals closer together than on other machines, forcing you to stand more upright and creating a running motion that’s a bit more natural, relieving some pressure on the hips and back. Because of this design, there’s no option to change the incline on the trainer, so the workout isn’t as complete as with a rear-drive unit. Center-drive elliptical machines are usually more portable than the rear-flywheel models, and may be priced even higher.
What to Look For in an Elliptical Machine?
As with most exercise equipment, elliptical machines offer an enormous range of features to choose from, and many manufacturers try and sell their products based on those features. We’ll look at a few of the important ones, but first let’s consider the more important elements of an elliptical: the mechanics. Obviously you’ll want durability, but here’s what else to look for.
- Flywheel: The heavier an elliptical trainer’s flywheel is, the smoother the machine will operate. A standard elliptical should have at least a 15-pound flywheel; if you’re shelling out for a high-level unit, it should be well over 20 pounds or even top the 30-pound mark.
- Brake and Resistance System: This is how an elliptical machine creates the resistance you work against in order to exercise. A low-end machine will have a manual magnetic brake system, which moves a standard U-shaped magnet closer or further away from the flywheel by a tension cable controlled by a knob on the machine. Standard machines have “particle” brakes which work basically the same way, except that the user pushes a button on the console to power a motor responsible for moving the magnet. When you get an elite machine, it will have “eddy current” brakes (ECBs) which change resistance by means of an electromagnet; this is the quietest, smoothest, most reliable – and most expensive – option. You may also see these ECBs called “quiet drive” or “silent magnetic resistance.” If you’re not going all in for a high-level elliptical, you should at least make sure it has particle brakes (also known as motorized brakes), the resistance control is easy to work, and there are multiple levels of resistance to choose from. Stay away from manual brakes. The resistance system is also largely responsible for how quiet or loud the machine is.
- Incline: No cross-training elliptical should be without an adjustable incline, which adds challenge, variety and “oomph” to your training. You should be sure the machine you’re considering has power incline so you can make adjustments without having to stop, and that it inclines up to a maximum of at least 20 degrees. The best machines will go up to 30 or 40 degrees.
Stride Length and Pedals: You’d probably guess that shorter strides (17-18 inches) only work for shorter people, and ellipticals should have a longer stride length (22-24 inches) for tall users. Most decent machines will have adjustable stride lengths. Better machines will also have adjustable or articulating pedals, which pivot as your feet change angles while working out. You should also be able to pedal backward as well as forward.
Programs and Console: This is no different than with other exercise equipment: just about all machines will have a console which shows time, stride, incline and often calories burned. The higher you go on the quality scale, the more readouts and options you’ll be given, with the most important being heart rate (either monitored through handlebar grips or a wireless monitor attached to your chest). You’ll also find that most ellipticals will have a number of different programmed workouts and some allow you to create your own, with the number and customizability closely related to price. Also look for compatibility with outboard apps which can download, evaluate and save your stats to a smartphone or tablet, if that’s important to you.
Other Features: Whether a cup/water bottle holder, iPod speakers, fans and reading racks make a difference in your purchase decision is something worth factoring in during your research. Each model will have different convenience features which you may or may not want to pay for.
Warranty: These vary considerably, but you should expect parts and labor to be covered for at least a couple of years on standard models, and should be sure the brakes are also covered for a good period of time.
When purchasing an elliptical machine, there’s no substitute for giving it a try in person. Look to make sure it’s sturdy, of course, but also spend some time judging the performance. It should operate smoothly without any jiggles or bounces as you pedal, you should be able to go through a full range of motion (including your upper body, if buying a cross-trainer) without having to adjust your body or lean one way or another, and the resistance and incline controls should be easily accessible and work properly. Also be sure to give a good listen; a quality machine will be quiet no matter how intense the workout.
If you don’t have the luxury of conducting an in-person test drive, pay close attention to the key facts presented in this elliptical machine buying guide, and continue your investigation armed with our review of the Top 5 Best Elliptical Machines.